NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. – Four-year-old Aiden Patrick was playing on the beach just yards away from his father when he yelled “Daddy” and ran toward him, into the path of an oncoming truck driving legally on the sand.

The July death, along with the death of a 4-year-old British girl who was struck on Daytona Beach a few months earlier, has tested this area’s tradition of beach driving. Residents are now torn between outlawing cars on the beach and presevering a deep-rooted ritual that helped form the Daytona 500 stock car race.

“It’s an extremely divisive issue that people get very emotional about,” said Volusia County Councilman Josh Wagner.

Like most local elected officials, Wagner wants to keep the custom.

Black-and-white photographs of early Ford models racing on the shore decorate bars and restaurant walls around town, some dating back to the first automobiles. NASCAR even held portions of its races on the sand until 1959, when Daytona International Speedway opened.

Beach driving isn’t as prevalent in Volusia County as it once was. Of the some 40 miles of beaches in the county, only about 17 miles are still open for cars. Vehicles pay a $5 toll for access, and there is a 10 mph speed limit.

There’s no barrier or median separating the driving lanes. Beachgoers have to cross the traffic lanes to get to the water, and when the tide rises, there is less room for children to play.

It was high tide when Aiden, from nearby Deltona, was killed on New Smyrna Beach, about 15 miles south of Daytona Beach.

Aiden’s father, Jason Patrick, had gone to the water to wash off his hands after eating watermelon. Aiden tried to follow.

Aiden “just wanted to be with his daddy,” his father told the county council during an emotional hearing shortly after the accident, pleading for them to end beach driving.

“I hope you never feel what I feel to watch your 4-year-old child’s life taken from you,” he said.

The driver wasn’t cited.

The council hired a consultant to study the issue, which could take months to complete because many of 2010’s busiest weekends already have passed. Some have suggested immediately adding more warning and speed limit signs, and banning texting and cell-phone use, although authorities said neither contributed to the toddlers’ deaths.

At least 10 people have been struck on Volusia beaches since March 2009, according to Florida Highway Patrol records. Most only had minor scrapes and bruises.

Four-year-old Ellie Bland was holding hands with her great-uncle on Daytona Beach in March when she was killed.

Councilwoman Pat Northey, one of the few local elected officials who supports a ban, said too many people are blaming the parents.

“It’s not a matter of watching your kids better. It’s a playground. Kids are going to play on the beach. We treat the beach as a roadway and it’s time to stop,” she said.